Long Covid to affect some people for 'many, many years', health boss says

A patient in Essex is given a spirometry test as part of a mobile Long Covid clinic.

A patient in Essex is given a spirometry test as part of a mobile Long Covid clinic. - Credit: John Nguyen/PA Wire

Long Covid will continue to affect some people in Suffolk for "many, many years" an expert has said – with a spike in the number of cases in the county predicted over coming months.

NHS models show the number of Long Covid cases in the county nearing 30,000, "mirroring the Omicron surge around Christmas time”.

At the start of March, there were estimated to be 12,685 cases in Suffolk, but a further 17,185 are expected by the middle of May.

Sarah Fowler, clinical lead for Suffolk and North East Essex Long Covid Assessment Service, said the clinic she leads has seen 1,200 people so far, but she believes it is only treating the "tip of the iceberg".

Sarah Fowler, clinical lead for Suffolk and North East Essex Long Covid Assessment Service

Sarah Fowler, clinical lead for Suffolk and North East Essex Long Covid Assessment Service - Credit: ESNEFT

These patients vary from those who may have no sense of taste or smell, to those with "crushing fatigue".

Mrs Fowler said: "For some people, even two years down the line, it is still a very physically and mentally debilitating illness."

At the moment there is no cure for Long Covid.

Mrs Fowler, who leads a team based in Bury St Edmunds, Ipswich and Colchester, said: "We're kind of building the plane as we're flying it.

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"At the moment it is about using self-management techniques to manage those peaks and troughs in symptoms while allowing as much natural recovery as you can. 

"For some people, it will be a condition they probably need to manage to a greater or lesser extent for many, many years.

"But we need to make sure we don't take hope away from people with long Covid and give a wrongly dire message. I think that is going to be the minority of cases. The majority of people will recover."

There are currently no tests available to determine if someone has Long Covid.

There are currently no tests available to determine if someone has Long Covid. - Credit: PA

The Long Covid assessment centre is currently funded with a ringfenced pot of cash from NHS England.

This funding has been renewed until March 2023.

Mrs Fowler said the question of funding was beyond her paygrade but added: "I think it's very difficult to see how you could suddenly say: 'We're pulling the plug'.

"One way or the other, there will need to be provision for those patients who still need it."

What is life like with Long Covid?

While there are no diagnostic tests for Long Covid or even a common definition, the common symptoms include continued shortness of breath or fatigue since having Covid-19, muscle ache or difficulty in concentrating.

Adam Rutherford, a scientist, author and broadcaster, who grew up in Ipswich, caught Covid in March 2020.

"I didn't actually get hospitalised but we did call an ambulance at one point," he said. "I was 45 at the time – pretty sporty and pretty healthy. But it just absolutely knocked me for six.

Adam Rutherford

Adam Rutherford - Credit: Stefan Jakubowski

"My friend described it as turning me into a baby.

"That went on for about two or three months."

Two years on, he is still feeling the effects of the disease.

He said: "I'm pretty much okay all of the time, but I can still feel it. 

"I have a slight trouble breathing when I go up slopes or upstairs.

"Whenever there's a bug going around it just floors me really quickly. I've got three kids who are at school and they shrug these things off in a few days, but it floors me."

Dr Rutherford, whose background is in genetics, said he had recently been forced to cancel work commitments by Long Covid.

"The pandemic is not over," he said. "And the repercussions of it not being over – even if they are milder – are going to be felt for decades to come."

What can be done to help Long Covid patients?

While there is no cure for Long Covid, Sarah Fowler said Suffolk and North East Essex Long Covid Assessment Service was offering a "holistic" range of treatments.

Being double-jabbed cuts the risk of Long Covid significantly, The Lancet Infectious Diseases journal reported.

Being double-jabbed cuts the risk of Long Covid significantly, The Lancet Infectious Diseases journal reported. - Credit: Charlotte Bond

The service does everything from helping patients apply for benefits, to prescribing them a set of breathing exercises put together by the English National Opera or a sleep plan put together by Suffolk Mind.

Vaccination can cut people's risks of getting Long Covid.

A study in The Lancet Infectious Diseases journal reported that the risk of Long Covid was reduced by almost half for those who were double-jabbed.

People who have symptoms for longer than 12 weeks may be able to get a referral to the Suffolk and North East Essex Long Covid Assessment Service (SNELCAS) from their GP.

Mrs Fowler also recommended the resources at yourcovidrecovery.nhs.uk.